The Age of Innovation

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Good post from Carl Olson on Steve Jobs that casts a different light on the man than some of the hagiography that we’ve seen.  What caught my attention and what I wanted to post about, however, was another article that he linked to which was written by Vaclav Smil.  It hits upon a subject I’ve been meaning to blog about since Jobs’s death.  The long and short of it: Steve Jobs was no Thomas Edison.

I have no desire to disparage or dismiss anything Jobs has done for his company, for its stockholders, or for millions of people who are incurably addicted to incessantly checking their  tiny Apple phones or washing their brains with endless streams of music—I just want to explain why Jobs is no Edison.

Any student of the history of technical progress must be struck by the difference between the epochal, first-order innovations that take place only infrequently and at unpredictable times and the myriad of subsequent second-order inventions, improvements, and perfections that could not have taken place without such a breakthrough and that both accompany and follow (sometimes with great rapidity, often rather tardily) the commercial maturation of that fundamental enabling advance. The oldest example of such a technical saltation was when our hominin ancestors began using stones to fashion other stones into sharp tools (axes, knives, and arrows). And there has been no more fundamental, epoch-making modern innovation than the large-scale commercial generation, transmission, distribution, and conversion of electricity.

I thought that perhaps the best way to illustrate the importance of electricity in modern civilization was to ask what we would not have without it:

The answer is just about everything in the modern world. We use electricity to power our lights, a universe of electronic devices (from cell phones to supercomputers), a panoply of converters ranging from  hand-held hair dryers to the world’s fastest trains, and almost every life saver (modern synthesis and production of pharmaceuticals is unthinkable without  electricity: vaccines need refrigeration, hearts are checked by electrocardiograms, and during operations are bypassed by electric pumps), and most of our food is produced, processed, distributed, and cooked with the help of electric machines and devices.

. . . Contrary to the standard narrative, his greatest contribution was not to invent the light bulb: a score of other inventors beat him to it, and he has to share the glory of its first commercially successful and relatively durable variety with Joseph Swan. Edison’s contribution was fundamentally far greater because he put in place, in a remarkably brief period between 1880 and 1882, the world’s first commercial system of electricity generation, transmission, and conversion. T.P. Hughes put it best when he concluded that “Edison was a holistic conceptualizer and determined solver of the problems associated with the growth of systems.” And the pace and breadth of his inventiveness is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that during those three critical years he was granted not only nearly 90 patents for incandescent filaments and lamps but also 60 patents for magneto or dynamo-electric machines and their regulation, 14 patents for the system of electric lighting, 12 patents for the distribution of electricity, and 10 patents for electric meters and motors.

There’s more at the link, and I encourage you to read it.  Smil is not out to insult Jobs, but rather he wants to put Jobs’s accomplishments in some context.

This is rather timely for me because I have just finished reading Mark Steyn’s After America.  One of the conceits of the book is a time traveler going forward from 1890 to 1950, and then traveling again from 1950 to 2010.  The difference in lifestyle would be mind boggling for the first time jump, but the second one would not be as awe inspiring.  Certainly there would be several impressive innovations, namely the personal computer, but most of the significant developments would be improvements over technologies that already existed rather than wholesale new devices.   We get excited over the release of a phone that allows us to play music and read the internet.  But imagine living in an age when you’re hand washing your clothes and have no means to cold store anything.  Now you’ve got a refrigerator and a washing machine.  The comparative lifestyle enhancement isn’t even close.  Or what about air conditioners?  If you lived in Houston, Texas before the air conditioner – well, you probably wouldn’t live there – the air conditioner would be a much bigger deal than a phone that lets you post facebook status updates.

Again, this is not to disparage Jobs or the wonderful toys we have at our disposal.  But can we honestly say that the innovative leaps we’ve made in the past sixty years are as impressive as the ones we made in the preceding sixty years?  Or are Steyn and Smil overlooking the importance of our new computer technologies, in particular medical technologies?

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  1. Perhaps, a stretch but this article makes me recall this exchange in Inherit the Wind with Spencer Tracy and Frederic March:

    Brady: Is it possible that something is holy to the celebrated agnostic?

    Drummond: Yes. The individual human mind. In a child’s power to master the multiplication table, there is more sanctity than in all your shouted “amens” and “holy holies” and “hosannas.” An idea is a greater monument than a cathedral. And the advance of man’s knowledge is a greater miracle than all the sticks turned to snakes or the parting of the waters. But, now, are we to forgo all this progress because Mr. Brady now frightens us with a fable?! Gentlemen, progress has never been a bargain. You have to pay for it. Sometimes I think there’s a man who sits behind a counter and says, “Alright, you can have a telephone, but you lose privacy and the charm of distance.” “Madam, you may vote, but at a price. You lose the right to retreat behind the powder-puff or your petticoat.” “Mr., you may conquer the air, but the birds will lose their wonder and the clouds will smell of gasoline.” Darwin took us forward to a hilltop from where we could look back and see the way from which we came, but for this insight, and for this knowledge, we must abandon our faith in the pleasant poetry of Genesis.

  2. I was thinking about something along these lines a while back when I was on a flight checking my email and getting cramps in my wrists and started thinking, “Really? We can put internet access into planes but can’t make flying efficient enough that people don’t have to be crammed in like sardines for it to be sustainable? Is this really progress?”

    On the computer issue, all the basic theory on which personal computing (or any kind of computing) was based had been worked out by 1940; when we talk about the revolution in modern computing, we’re really talking about integrated circuits, which still gets us only as late as the 1950s, and thus even if we take Steyn and Smil to be underestimating the importance of computers, the central discovery of that is almost an exception that proves the rule: one could just as easily take the integrated circuit to be a late bloomer, the last hoo-rah, so to speak — people were working toward things roughly like integrated circuits in the 40s, and it’s just that some tricky issues with materials and precise design took some time to work out (e.g., it took some time to recognize that full integration was in general a better design than modular wafers, and it took a while to realize that silicon was a handier semiconductor than germanium for the chips).

  3. Paul,

    Exactly. I have not read the book (read several chapters at B&N and had enough), but I did hear Mark Steyn mention this and when Steve Jobs did pass away, his point of not being as amazed was very succinct and applicable to Steve Jobs.


    Excellent point, but not to be “obtuse”, Steve Jobs didn’t invent the computer. Nor did he build the original Apple (Woz did).

    But Steve’s greatest contribution was how effective he was in combining art and technology. He was a marketing genius and for that he should be rightly commended.

  4. Tito-
    Jobs made a lot of tech toys “cool.” That sounds like it might be a putdown, but it really isn’t– “isn’t that so COOL!” has been a motivator for folks to advance.

  5. Jobs sure has had a lot written about him since his death. Then why is it that I do not own an iPad or iPhone or iPod and don’t want one? It must be the ever growing influence of popular (slopular) culture on our society.

    George Westinghouse was a far more important “inventor” than Jobs. Westinghouse invented the air brake, which made rail travel safe. the same basic technology is still used today on trains, buses and trucks. Tesla invented alternating current, but Westinghouse obtained the patent and Westinghouse kicked Edison’s butt with AC.

    Before the destructive Michael Jordan (not the NBA player) became CEO of Westinghouse Electric Corporation, Westinghouse was a far more important company than Apple. Westinghouse started the world’s first commercial radio station. As stated earlier, I can live without anything Apple makes. Westinghouse air brakes, light bulbs, refrigerators, radios, power generation. defense contracting and broadcasting had a far greater positive impact than Jobs’ toys.

    Mr. Green, please state the scientific proof that Darwin’s evolution has been proven to be fact. The last I read, it’s still a theory.

  6. The best innovation of all that makes all the rest possible is access to low cost energy. As fossil fuels run out and their burning continues to adversely affect the environment, that age is coming to a close…


    We get over over our paranoid fear of nuclear energy. Those nations (like communist China) who embrace nuclear energy will have low cost access. Those nations (like the US) that let events like Fukushima instill unreasoning fear will fail. (PS, less than a dozen people died outright from Fukushima Daiichi, but 1800 people in a nearby village died when renewable energy – a dam – failed.

    Innovation such as what Steve Jobs provided us requires low cost energy. But fear stands in our way. There’s snout thorium and uranium in Earth’s crust to provide everyone the same standard of energy consumption and style of living that the average American enjoys, and to do so for 100 thousand years or more simply by breeder reactors.

    Instead, what we have is an anti-nuke NRC Chairman who is keeping North Anna shutdown after the August earthquake that resulted in no nuclear significant damage, and who is hamstringing the industry with more and more regulations out of Fukushima scare tactics.

    Sometime I think our greatest innovation is a government bureaucracy that stifles anything promising to grow the economy.

  7. Sometime I think our greatest innovation is a government bureaucracy that stifles anything promising to grow the economy.

    That was basically the point Steyn was making in coming up with the time machine scenario.

  8. Kevin Drum has a response to this line of thinking: Why the Future Is Brighter Than You Think

    A lot of recent innovation is behind the scenes. Wal-Mart could not exist in 1950. Paul Krugman said that, except for the microwave, the kitchen of today is pretty much identical to the kitchen of 1950. To which Megan McArdle, responded, “try cooking like it’s 1950.” No frozen ingredients. No food processor. No coffee maker. Most importantly it means cooking in summer without air conditioning. These are things you don’t think about when you look at only the stove and the refrigerator.

    Every new technology is a luxury. Today, of course light bulbs are indispensable but in Edison’s time, they were as necessary as smartphones. Instead of comparing the utility of smartphones vs. light bulbs to us, we should compare the utility of smartphones to us vs. the utility of light bulbs to someone in 1890. Making the comparison that way, it isn’t so clear which had the greater impact.

  9. Wal-Mart could not exist in 1950.

    The A & P existed. Woolworth’s existed. J.C. Penney existed. Associated Dry Goods existed.

    “try cooking like it’s 1950.” No frozen ingredients. No food processor. No coffee maker. Most importantly it means cooking in summer without air conditioning.

    The house I spent my childhood in was equipped with the original refrigerator, installed in 1942. It was equipped with a freezer only slightly smaller than the one in my home today. Drip coffee tastes just fine. People where I live seldom if ever have air conditioners in their kitchen. My grandmother lived most of her life in metropolitan Washington and had, after 1955, window units deployed everywhere but the kitchen. A food processor is an implement fit only for Rod Dreher (who for six years lived in a house with all the windows painted shut and the a/c running 24/7 to boot).

  10. Has anyone ever seen Steve Jobs smile? I mean for a guy who supposedly connected up a world with no strangers he was one surly Buddhist. Bill Gates, who is usually cast as Darth Vader in these proceedings could always manage a smile now and then. Apple is a creepily manipulative company, they ran an advertising campaign in the 80s feauturing a faux rebellion with Pink Floyd’s “Brick in the Wall” as background music. The impression I had was that the rebel students were being primed for a much more subtle enslavement. Apple is not alone in this; Google is on course to becoming the most hated IT company out there.

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